Legacy Poems, Introductory Lecture
Module Introductory Lecture, Legacy Poems:
In July of 1936, African-American poet Langston Hughes published his poem “Let America Be America Again” in Esquire Magazine. Later, it was published in a small collection entitled A New Song” (1938) and has been widely anthologized. Many of Hughes’ poems illuminate and elaborate the lives and struggles of African Americans, and this poem is no exception. While this is true of this poem, Hughes takes a broader view here, speaking of the history of many additional groups of Americans denied access to The American Dream.
“Let America Be America Again” begins with a patriotic appeal to let the nation return to the principles it has always championed. The speaker quickly challenges the idea, however, of an America which affords access for all to a life supported by the principles, first and foremost, of freedom and opportunity. The American Dream of freedom and equality, the speaker asserts, excludes many in the country, including Native Americans, immigrants, people of color and working-class or lower-income people. “Let America Be America Again” is often seen as a poem of protest on behalf of all disadvantaged people in the United States, addressing the conditions of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and relevant, as well, to the present. However, Hughes also expresses a strong sense of hope for a more equitable, inclusive American future for all people. Both the powerful poem and its ideals still resonate with today’s audience.
Numerous African American poets since Langston Hughes evoke this legacy in their poetry, a revelation of long-standing injustice followed by an elaboration of hopes for a more equitable and beautiful future. It is noteworthy that three African American poets have been selected to compose and perform poems for U.S. presidential inaugurations, an assignment which specifically calls for a work elaborating these themes.
The three notable poets are, respectively, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Amanda Gorman.
Maya Angelou, a novelist, poet and Civil Rights activist, wrote and performed “On the Pulse of Morning” for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in i993. This poem confronts some of the violence, colonialism, negative environmental impact and inequality present in U.S, history, yet, like Hughes’ poem, presents a desire for hope, in this case by calling for a sense of unity amongst all Americans and responsibility towards each other and towards our shared Earth. Much like Hughes’ poem, Angelou’s has been called a manifesto. It differs from “Let America Be America AGai” in that rather than a direct address to the people, “On the Pulse of Morning” puts forth symbols, specifically the Rock, the River, and the Tree in conversation with the speaker. Some view the dark imagery of Angelou’s piece as harsher in nature than that of Hughes. Its concluding call of “Good Morning!” leaves the audience with a sense of optimism and new beginnings despite the conditions elaborated.
Elizabeth Alexander is a much-venerated scholar, educator, poet, and mentor. She has chaired Yale University’s African American Studies Department and holds a prestigious position there teaching poetry, among many other accomplishments, and helped found Cave Canem, an organization which promotes African American poets and their work. Alexander was chosen to compose and perform the poem “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. This poem, as its title would indicate, has a more evident elaboration of positive American attributes. Nevertheless, it utilizes a critical sense of irony particularly in its opening stanza. Its critique of society is not as prominent as the other inaugural poems, and focuses on the current moment and pursuits of Americans rather than the problems of the past.
Amanda Gorman, the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate whose poem “The Hill We Climb” has recently been published in a 2021 collection of the same name, performed the poem composed specifically for the occasion at the inauguration of 46th U.S. president Joseph R. Biden. Gorman’s poem proposes a challenge to contemporary Americans to work in unity to address a continued lack of equality. “The Hill We Climb” conveys a bright optimism alongside its portrayal and critique of contemporary social injustices.
The poems of Hughes, Angelou and Gorman can be considered examples of an oratorical style of poetry. These poets use substantial repetition and alliteration in their poems. While both poems use clear, precise diction to establish a sense of high ideals, the disappointment and anger of the Hughes piece seems to indicate a purpose of elaborating hard truths, among other things, while Gorman’s piece, as an inaugural poem, seems to indicate a more inspirational purpose. As such, it takes up the mantle of “Let America Be America Again” and expands the appeal in light of present circumstances in the nation.
Required Reading and Recommended Watching:
- Let America Be America Again https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147907/let-america-be-america-again
- On the Pulse of Morning https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48990/on-the-pulse-of-morning
- Praise Song for the Day https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52141/praise-song-for-the-day
- The Hill We Climb (recommended)
Performances of “Let America Be America by celebrated actor James Earl Jones and contemporary poet Danez Smith, which can be located through any major internet search engine, provide starkly different renderings of the Langston Hughes poem. Listening to these readings is recommended, as it will provide the audience an additional way to enter, engage with and understand the poem. While listening, consider how responses to each performance create a different experience of the work. It is also recommended that students research and enjoy the available performances of the Alexander, Angelou and Gorman poems.
Attribution and License
The "Legacy Poems" Module lecture and assignments by Nina Adel are licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.